Archive for the Art Category

The Built Environment

Posted in Art, History, Tourism with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2010 by traxus4420

Claude Lorrain, “Landscape with Aeneas at Delos” (1672)

Blueprint for the English garden: meandering routes plotted in ‘nature,’ interspersed with freestanding ‘ruins,’ occasions for a little voyage de la mémoire. Here, a scene extracted from classical epic is made familiar and livable through incorporation into the genre of landscape. So effectively that decades later, gentlemen of means did want to inhabit it, and to the best of their capacity, did. A new kind of professional was born: the landscape architect.

William Wylde, “View of Manchester from Kersal Moor” (1852)

Behold “Cottonopolis” as Manchester became popularly known, after its principle export. Seen today, landscape’s encounter with a realism of disruption and trauma bears more than a subtle resemblance to stock images from science fiction. Whereas the landscape garden opened up to refined sensation figures from refined history, Wylde’s painting locates the viewer on a preserved historical site (the moor, a city park, was heavily associated with Rome) at once surrounded by and comfortably distanced from its present and future. Among the first examples of a place’s complete redefinition according to its function within an integrated national production regime, it also came to be understood as the site where that regime’s excesses were the most visible, striking, ‘sublime.’ Contrast with London, locus of another kind of economic ‘function,’ another brand of ‘excess.’

Joseph Michael Gandy, “A Birds-Eye View of the Bank of England,” aka “The Bank of England in Ruins” (1830)
John Soane’s response to early criticism of his eccentric design for the Bank of England was to display it in cutaway as a ruin. Of course his work was destroyed, but only to have it ‘modernized’ by the late imperial architect Herbert Baker. Pugin used Soane as one of his key polemical examples of the urgent need for a Gothic renaissance which would last well into the 20th century. Soane had taken the contradictory dictates of Enlightenment aesthetics too seriously: the individual freedom (and even the responsibility) to master classical form, unearthing its ‘natural’ core and adapting its timeless laws to modern interests. So seriously that he knew that his work had to persist in time, and thus had to be imbued with a sense of itself as an eventual antique. And this made him a Romantic.

(Ideal) Self-Recognition

Posted in Art, blogging, Cultural Theory, The Internet on October 29, 2009 by traxus4420

In recent years, some people have adopted the list form only to strip it to its foundation, yielding ultra-simple pages consisting of sequences of images cobbled together with little or no explanation, each image radically different from its neighbors, each likely to confound, amuse, or disquiet. These web pages are often “personal” pages belonging to artists or groups of artists. Text is relegated to minimal captions in these Internet wunderkammern, and sometimes abolished entirely.

Let’s call such a page a hoarding. The word can refer to a stash of collected goods, but can also mean a billboard, or the temporary wall thrown up around a construction site. The look of the hoarding is similar to that of a particular type of artist’s book that has flourished in the last 15 years or so, featuring page after page of heterogeneous images, a jumble of magazine scans, amateur snapshots, downloaded jpegs, swipes from pop culture and art history alike, some small, some full-bleed, none with explication. The similarity is not coincidental, for “the last 15 years or so” defines the Internet age as we know it, with its ubiquitous, colorful mosaics, evidently a powerful influence on publishing of all kinds.

What can we say about the experience of scrolling through a hoarding, trying to understand the procession of pictures? As in traditional fashion magazines, we find excitement and confusion in equal measure, with one catalyzing the other. Beyond that, it often seems that any information or knowledge in these pages is glimpsed only through a slight fog of uncertainty. Has an image been spirited out of the military defense community, or is it journalism; is it medical imaging, or pornography; an optical-illusion, or a graph; is it hilarious, disturbing, boring; is it doctored, tweaked, hue-saturated, multiplied, divided; is it a ghost or a vampire? In any event, the ultimate effect is: “What the fuck am I looking at?” Something that hovers in your peripheral vision.

One might ask, how does this depart from the queasily ambivalent celebration of the image that has characterized the last fifty years of pop culture, possibly the last century and a half of mass media? It could be the muteness of the offering, the lack of justification or context. But the observation that modern media divorce phenomena from context is a commonplace, and usually an invitation to reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of experience. A hoarding is notable because while it is a public representation of a performed, elective identity, it is demonstrated through what appears to be blankness, or at least the generically blank frenzy of media.

This may be a response to the embarrassing and stupid demands of interactivity itself, which foists an infantilizing rationality on all “Internet art,” and possibly Internet use generally, by prioritizing the logic of the connection, thereby endorsing smooth functioning and well-greased transit. Recourse to the almost mystically inscrutable may be understood as a block to the common sensical insistence on the opposition of information to noise, and as a form of ritualized unknowing.

It could also be a dismissal of the ethos of self-consciously generous transparency that characterizes “web 2.0”: the freely offered opinions, the jokey self-effacement, the lapses into folksiness in the name of a desire to forge reasoned agreement and common experience among strangers. It is wise to mistrust this earnest ethos, which is inevitably accompanied by sudden and furious policing of breaches in supposedly normative behavior. This is not to argue that such consensus building is disingenuous, rather that it is simply politics, in the sense that politics is at heart concerned with separating out friends from enemies. In this view, the hard-fought equilibrium of an orderly on-line discussion is indistinguishable from its scourge, the flame war: reasonably or violently, both aim at resolution and a kind of confirmation of established precepts. Might a hoarding—a public billboard that declines to offer a coherent position, a temporary wall that blocks reasoned discourse—escape the duty to engage ratio and mores and resolution, in a kind of negative utopian critique? No, it probably cannot. But the perversity of its arrangement of pictures speaks for itself, and what it speaks of is manipulation.

Seth Price

One cannot just set the pro forma Schmittian (just to give it a proper name) logic of this piece aside, but it is a rather elegant illustration. A ready made image for someone else’s ‘hoard,’ and my first revision would be to replace that 18th-century insult with a coinage from one of blogdom’s dearly departed, an Arcades Blog. Which is itself another reference, which is the whole point. Why does a series of captionless images have to be irrational or perverse? One can imagine future art historians concluding that the age of mass marketing’s greatest achievement lay in convincing the world’s consumers that images (and through the backdoor, ambiguity) are a priori the language of unreason. Certainly images can be used to think. More pernicious is the idea that images which are ‘simply’ affect manipulators (that is, have ‘nonsense’ as their manifest content) are for that reason lacking in logical sequence.

Immaturity. Escape. Vertigo. The cynical romance of commodities.

Though I have made frequent use of the photo montage on this blog, a more concentrated experiment can be found here. Even something like this, an image or two posted every now and then, sometimes with words, sometimes without, all apparently fitting the idea of the ‘hoard,’ is not without pattern or immune to meaning. If the wunderkammern were overdetermined by the excessive display of strange and uncommon objects, the image blog (here‘s one of my favorites; here‘s another) is a collection of moments of an all-too familiar process of circulation, captured, and in that moment of capture recirculated as something novel, their significance altered. ‘Defamiliarized,’ even. Even when their authorial anchor is just an arbitrary sign: traxus4420.

My naive intent for the tumble blog is the same as with this one: for each post to be useful as part of a new process of thought. Failing that, it is also made to be ignored. Is a challenge to ‘common sense’ possible with these things at all? If so, it can only be by demanding different kinds of attention and different kinds of thinking. Because the facade of irrationality that merely prompts us to “reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of experience” is advertising. Though it might be all that separates one from the other is the presence or absence of a product.


Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art, Environmentalism, Film, History, Noo Yawk, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2008 by traxus4420

I want to know what this word means. The past couple days I’ve encountered it as a problem over and over again, taking a different form each time.

The first was at a screening of John Gianvito’s The profit motive and the whispering wind, taking Zach‘s advice. Short reviews here and here. It demonstrated to me how unaccustomed I am to the visual language of cinema that doesn’t compensate for its low budget with other kinds of excess (gore and sex), i.e. the better part of ‘experimental’ films. Even as I was trying to adjust to the way the images looked and felt, their content, the graves of American socialist and progressive heroes and sites of violent struggle, many of which wear their absence from the cultural memory in the form of overgrowth or intentional concealment, would not allow me to look away. How could I, after having done so for so long?  Good interviews here and here, where Gianvito discusses his decision not to include any information about the sites or the people referenced within the film, that doing so would have given the illusion of mastery over the material (in the manner of something like the History Channel or PBS), and stalled reflection on why general knowledge about these events and people is so spotty. This is didacticism as a confrontation with ignorance as opposed to the false sense of its defeat.

Its effect is different from the ‘hauntological,’ especially in the most recent adventures in electronic music, in that the interruptions of the past and future into the present are not mystified. When the film displays a site in apparent non-relation to its very different contemporary surroundings — fast food restaurants and highways, in the case of the Boston Massacre an unmarked street corner — the specificity of names and dates displayed by intertitles or by the physical markers prompts us to reconstruct that connection, not to dwell on its absence. Zach’s comparison with Terence Malick is appropriate: both summon a certain kind of romanticism with regard to nature and history, unafraid of beauty (Gianvito’s work won me over eventually), and though too intelligent for nostalgia, both resist categorical distinctions between nature, history, and aesthetics. Gianvito is able to achieve similar effects to Malick (and Tarkovsky, whom he has scholarly interest in) while eschewing the ‘excesses’ of fiction or expensive cinematography. Unlike Malick he is not a mythmaker, and so is both more and less direct in addressing his audience.

For exhibit B, an art show named “After Nature” after the poem “Nach der Natur” by W.G. Sebald, an increasingly admired writer whose work I am unfamiliar with, except for the poem, which is (like Gianvito’s film) full of historical references I’m also unfamiliar with. Here’s a short section, translated from German (and virtually annotated):

On the Basel Crucifixion of 1505
behind the group of mourners
a landscape reaches so far into the depth
that our eyes cannot see its limits.
A patch of brown scorched earth
whose contour like the head of a whale
or an open-mouthed leviathan
devours the pale green meadow plains,
and the marshily shining stretches
of water. Above it, pushed off to behind the horizon, which step by step grows darker, more glowering,
rise the hills of the prehistory of the Passion. We see the gate
of the Garden of Gesthemane, the approach
of the henchmen and the kneeling figure of Christ
so reduced in size that in the
receding space the rushing
away of time can be sensed.
Most probably Gruenewald painted
and recalled the catastrophic incursion
of darkness, the last trace of light
flickering from beyond, after nature,
for in the year 1502, when he was working
at Bindlach, below the Fichtelgebirge,
on the creation of the Lindenhardt altar,
on the first of October the moon’s shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Gruenewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffen Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter’s memory.

A good portion of the art in the show seemed to unfold the darker and more morbid currents of the poem out into flat, confrontational snark. Confusion, I think, has a tendency to fall back on sensation. The environmental clusterfuck and the revolution in infrastructure and basic ways of thinking that will be necessary to adequately confront it are rich in interpretive possibilities, as productive of fantasy as the constant holocaust of industrial society’s development and expansion. So it would make sense that most such fantasies would be uninterested in moving beyond their very interesting moment — instead meditating on its possible components, or compiling its imaginary genealogies. Apocalypse, therefore, was all over everything.

Has life without fire become unbearable for them?

After Sebald, Werner Herzog was the show’s elder statesman. The still is from the oil-drilling documentary (with an opera soundtrack) Lessons of Darkness. The New Yorker review notices this:

Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.

and this:

You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap.

Trying on the clothes of rebels, manic prophets, or admen gives way to trying on those of elders in mourning. Competing for the privilege of manifesting “durable truths” that the institutional art market, having been ‘running on empty’ for quite a while now, so desperately needs to sustain its credibility and self-respect. But the private fantasies it puts on display have even less capacity to make anyone care about anything than they did eight years ago, when it was still cool to glory in superficiality. The best of the art on display was still only ‘interesting,’ like this piece by Roberto Cuoghi, part of a sequence of fanciful maps of the axis of evil:

It seems to me that what’s missing is a sense of shared collective energy, something more than just a vague ‘zeitgeist’ culled from reading the same articles on middle eastern wars, fuel resource depletion, and global warming. I have a hard time seeing how that could ever happen in the mortuary space cultivated by museums and high-end galleries in their efforts to capture the image of a masterpiece.

More than anything else, cultural institutions crave legitimacy in a crisis. To be reassured that we still believe in their ability to tell us what’s important.

Exhibit C, a conversation on architecture:

The hype machine will not let up even for one tiny little second. An unscripted dialogical performance between two aging head honchos of a field is an ‘event’ worthy of this exaggerated self-importance that no one takes seriously, but everyone still seems to feel obligated to participate in.

The theme was performance, which in architectural parlance refers to the field’s digital revolution, with  design programs such as AutoCAD replacing traditional drafting, initiating the explosion of new forms with no relation to anything outside algorithmic variation — some of which could never be actually constructed even if they were somehow granted permission. Eisenman complained of the lack of accepted criteria for ordering a proliferation of forms whose only law seems to be “infinite variability.” Wigley agreed with a few reservations about the language (which is apparently a first for them). As for why this is the case, they eventually concluded that architectural education and production is still very “conservative,” with a rhetoric still based on cultivating individual genius and a practice still rooted in the medieval guild model of each school training students according to a narrow range of institutionally accepted formal principles. According to Eisenman, without an adequate theory to structure the potential of the new technology, the products of the latest generation of architects are little more than “toys”: “Where we are with architecture is really still at the level of the sandbox.” There was some back and forth about the potential for inter-firm collaboration and open-sourcing of formal strategies, and then everything devolved into arguments with the audience for and against the need for theory.

Hearing architects talk is like re-reading Theory articles from the ’80s, with Derrideans and Deleuzians and post-Marxist Foucaultians throwing their overly sophisticated discourses at each other, except the same arguments are happening amongst literary theorists now in the language of ‘political theology.’ The political theologists have mostly ignored technology for Hobbes, Schmitt, and Augustine, and like ’80s Theorists, architects are still wound up about technology, whether it represents order or chaos. Still, the guiding questions seem to be the same: do we need theory, what is theory good for — the word ‘theory’ serving as a vehicle for equating metaphysics, authority, law, order, religion, with ‘genius’ as its honored, structurally mandated exception. Wigley saying, self-critically of course, something like “architecture provides the illusion of certainty in the face of uncertainty.” Is the overthrow of the Power of the Institution an Apocalypse? Is Apocalypse Necessary? Is it Good?

I see intellectuals from the baby boom still dominating the direction of argument, and my generation still following dutifully along with their regression into some kind of bizarre guilt complex for having rejected the illusions of the 1950s, its ideological marriage of authority, comfort and the assumption of plenty. If with the latest set of challenges to industrial capitalist hegemony we are forced to encounter old limits anew, they are not going to fit into the categories once used to contain them, as if they were the only ways anyone has ever knew how to think (as if they were thought itself), the power discourse of yesteryear serving today as a kind of pathetic security blanket.

Heroes We Deserve

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art, Cultural Theory, culturemonkey, Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by traxus4420

X-posted at culturemonkey

As the critics note, we are currently at what seems to be a peak in the production of high-grossing, critically acclaimed superhero blockbusters — a saturation point, perhaps, of a longue durée that dates from 1989 with Burton’s Batman.*After one notable lapse in major studio backing following the humiliating failure of the first Batman franchise, Hollywood figured out something important: the former objects of camp no longer presuppose the camp sensibility. Scanning the reviews for the Burton/Schumacher series as its latent eccentricities blossomed into a hornier, MTV version of the ’60s television show, one finds a rising chorus of demands for something “darker,” “edgier,” “more adult,” a resistance and even revulsion for the franchise’s aestheticized distance from its material. Overreacting to complaints from parents over excessive violence, Warner Bros. amped up the camp in spite of agonized critics and fanboys, who were reading a lot of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Even in that first film, the “darkest” of the four, Jack’s Joker was “too over the top,” Beetlejuice as Batman too “weird” and “wimpy.”

Never say Hollywood can’t learn from its mistakes. The producers have figured out how to please everyone: maintain earnestness regardless of the inherent absurdity of the genre, be ‘topical’ by way of empty allegory, be spectacularly violent, never stop moralizing. Meet these requirements, and a great deal of variety is possible: one has free reign to be jokey or serious, bright or gloomy, undisguisedly sexist, racist, homophobic, or none of the above, ‘critical,’ or ‘wish fulfillment.’ Or all of the above. These labels are simply not the creator’s responsibility. Restore the superhero’s propaganda function, in short, and in so doing prove Sontag’s thesis that “pure camp” is always so for the future and not the present.** The comic book-loving nerds of my generation are now faced with the dubious realization of our pubescent dreams: the nerds have taken over Hollywood, and the responsibility thus falls to the Figure of the Superhero to ‘teach us’ something about the “human condition.

Pairing up the summer’s two most critically and commercially successful entries: Iron Man and The Dark Knight, is instructive. One or two professional critics noticed the balls-out obvious apologies for the authoritarian, repressive ‘excesses’ of global capitalism, but the vast majority of the critical and popular response made me feel like I was in a bad parodic update of 1984 — of the very few who bothered to address the films’ unavoidable (or so I thought) pseudopolitics, the smart ones and the dumb ones alike seemed generally pleased.

Neoliberal assumptions (avowed or disavowed) are typical for the output of most mainstream cinematic and critical output these days, and it’s usually not even worth mentioning in the individual case. I bring up superhero movies in this context because they’re just so open about it. And yet a liberal media that would spend half the day spitting on Bush and the evils of multinational corporations can spend the other half hyperbolically puffing a movie that shares, in exaggerated form, the contorted view of reality demonstrated every day by these institutions, some of which produced the films.

What I suspect underlies the general tolerant attitude towards their content is the comforting but kind of really unlikely and unfounded assumption that corporate mass entertainment expresses collective desires — even that it does so better than a production financed independently. We are then able to rationalize objectionable content. The curiously archaic gender roles — the women of IM and TDK essentially spend the entire movie trying to decide who to screw — are of a kind with the racial politics — witness IM‘s moronic (and casually incinerated) Arab barbarians and their helpless Arab victims, TDK‘s Asian menace, its blacks whose humanity is dependent on their obedience to legitimate authority (the ferryboat prisoner’s conscience is portrayed as spiritually profound while all the Joker needs to do to make two gangsters fight to the death, which we see them prepared to do on all fours, is drop a stick and say ‘go’): they must be ironic, or ‘really’ a clever auto-critique. As chabert describes here, the meaning of what we see is deferred to a menu of metaphysical choices provided by the film itself — positioning ourselves in relation to these ambiguously warring ‘philosophies’ is what gives the calculatedly shocking imagery its significance for us as individual viewers. But one need not approach the film in anything like an intellectual way, analysis is optional. Should one be unable or unwilling to process an image or line of dialogue, an alibi is always in play for shrugging it off as a completely meaningless special effect: “it’s just a comic book movie, man.”

Superhero movies are ideal for this sort of operation because they are what we might call post-genre. As A.O. Scott writes in the second linked article at the top of this post, their ‘laws’ are the abstract ones of the corporate PG-13 ‘blockbuster.’ A hero is born, develops into an ideal self-image, inherits fortune along with an inevitable enemy who must be defeated via increasingly lengthy, bloodless explosions, etc. Given those requirements, all existing genres are fair game. IM is a little bit science fiction, a little bit Top Gun/Iron Eagle, visual borrowings from mecha anime, splash of romcom patter, pinch of Jackass (in a couple faux-amateur handicam shots of Stark hurting himself while testing his military hardware). These elements are not so much blended as they are thrown together, so that the film shifts around spastically in tone and style despite the grinding forward motion of its 3-act machine. TDK labors under a more consistent directorial hand, but its plot structure is similarly incoherent. About the only stabilizing force available for readings of either film comes from its foregrounded ideological formulas, which are both horrendous, but as I said earlier, optional, the films keeping themselves ‘open’ for more ‘complex’ interpretations. They’re for kids and adults.

The apparent openness of interpretation is more true of TDK than IM, since most of the latter’s appeal is predicated on us being charmed by Robert Downey Jr. We watch him progress from bad-boy pop star captain of the military industrial complex to good corporate citizen, with a heart of liquid fusion (or something like that). In the comments of the post above, chabert remarks on the unreconstructed ’40s era mores assumed without irony by a number of recent mass entertainments. I would have said ’50s, as it seems clear to me that fantasy today is determined by its reaction to crisis; that decade’s tropes, the power of technology despite (and even because of) recognized dangers, the insecure overstatement of moral and political superiority over monstrous enemies, the total subordination of women and ‘minorities,’ have been cropping up all over the place, from the queasy nostalgia of David Lynch to their seamless blend with ‘realism’ in IM and TDK. As Voyou writes, we seem to be experiencing a “repetition-as-farce of the ’50s” in a number of areas, an experience perhaps of the failed realization of an older dream of the future.

IM views the War on Terror and the energy crisis through 1950s-colored glasses, much like the original ’60s character did for Vietnam and the rise of multinational corporations; its solution is to take the heroic-yet-faustian scientist figure out of his lab coat and literally meld him with the product of his alienated labor, only conceivable if he is also a capitalist. The film never stops playing up his personal power, making him out to be a hip pop mogul a la Steve Jobs. We see, however, that this flashy, superficial power is predicated on some major blind spots in his consciousness (i.e. his weapons are used to kill people). His path to true power (and moral vindication) is to master his personal limits. He builds his own Iron Man outfit, he completely binds his company to himself by rooting out the Jew-Arab conspiracy initiated by his co-CEO (not kidding, also his name is Obadiah), he shifts his company’s business away from weapons (which can be ‘misused’) to privatized renewable energy (which clearly can’t). He ends in a position of absolute control of his much-enlarged personal effects, the power journey going hand-in-hand with the moral journey, a necessary connection demonstrated by Stark scrupulously avoiding ‘collateral damage’ while blowing up Genghis Khan-quoting Arab terrorists, generating clean energy (the same substance that powers his heart!), and resisting the urge to pull a Mr. B on Gwyneth Paltrow’s ingenue secretary. Once all these trials are completed, we get the basic difference between IM and TDK — Stark can ‘come out’ as Iron Man. Maximum power=maximum accountability — though retaining secret paramilitary backup just in case — in other words, the old Clintonian boom years restored.

Padraig notes in the comments here that Bruce Wayne’s buyout of his own company (his repression of finance capital) makes him an old-school conservative, not a neoliberal. Stark does the same thing. So they are both, in a reactionary way, skeptical about capitalism (aren’t we all). IM is organized around the fantasy that military power and accountability (and personability, charm) can and indeed must be seamlessly blended through a reassertion and consolidation of natural and ethical limits, but TDK is structured by a series of interlocking thought experiments, the universalization of predetermined binary ‘choices.’ The film’s much-vaunted ‘shades of grey’ are an effect of the complex ‘moral calculus’ needed to function in such a constrained environment, where you can’t even blow up one little apartment building without elaborate justification, a challenge which mirrors the intellectual effort necessary to take this movie as seriously as its critics seem to. That it is considered more “serious” than IMIM is a “guilty pleasure” or an “entertaining romp,” TDK is a “pulp epic” of “boundless imagination” — is evidence of the stronger cultural cache of deterministic ‘pessimism.’ We’re presented with a bunch of high-powered decision-makers with entertainingly conflicting and destructive worldviews, not necessarily as points of identification (we’re shown that Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face are all irresponsible assholes) but as points of departure for our own analysis. I’m reminded of a wikiquote from Slavoj Žižek colonizer of academia for the pop culture machine:

Žižek: Yes, and the age of philosophy in the sense again that we are confronted more and more often with philosophical problems at an everyday level. It is not that you withdraw from daily life into a world of philosophical contemplation. On the contrary, you cannot find your way around daily life itself without answering certain philosophical questions. It is a unique time when everyone is, in a way, forced to be some kind of philosopher.

Beyond the ‘entertainment value’ of things blowing up on huge IMAX screens, beyond the collector’s appeal of the pop cultural references, the only value of these movies is equivalent to their ideological function: that we can use them to think about the world. The Batman film especially gives us the ‘tools’ to believe that we are ‘some kind of philosophers.’ We’re supplied with easily digestible nuggets pulled from headlines and pop filosofy with which to examine and ‘problematize’ our lives with the dilemmas and theories of Great Men: the ethics of extralegal power, chance vs. anarchy, the surveillance state, “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” (another romcom setup!), all products of the clash of concepts. Any complicating factors which might come from a different engagement with reality are removed. One could say I’m being fussy, as this is all pretty standard convention for the creation of fairytales, but then, “why so serious” if it’s assumed we all know better?

As always, the way to understand ideology is not to ask ‘what does the film think,’ nor ‘what can I think through the lens of this film,’ but ‘what does thinking ‘with’ the film prevent me from thinking.’ These behemoths are not interested in making ‘arguments’ (that’s our job), their job is to reinforce premises. Not because their creators have malicious intentions, but because it is important for their financial backers and consequently for them to ensure that those premises remain profitable. For example, the baseline pessimism and dependency that supports big-screen violent fantasies along with the notion that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is comforting, enabling to all kinds of fantasies, and serves as ground zero for a set of trained assumptions about the world, along with the opinions, laudatory, apologetic, or critical, derived from them. This is one definition of ‘popular.’

Movies featuring Batman and Iron Man are art in the same sense that this is art, with the important exception that Jeff Koons really exists. They are carefully planned and promoted media events; the buzz is the art, the actors’ personal lives are art, the criticism is art, the advertising is art. The profit is art. Everyone’s opinion is potentially valuable. Discussing the ‘object itself,’ relying on the tools it provides us with, is sort of quixotic in this context, inescapably minor and cliquish no matter if the critical lens is in the high culture modes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and political theory or the sewers of fanboy mythography (not to mention the middle ground, allegorizing with headlines). Doing so just identifies the speaker with their discursive order: nerd, cult studs academic, movie critic, political moralist, etc., and helps establish a system of exchange between these ‘fields’ and the Hollywood production line. Given the increasing ‘popularity’ and ‘purity’ (openness/emptiness) of the object, what more can one reasonably expect?

Corporate cinema has pushed the superhero, a product of a genuinely popular (though not universal) culture, beyond the limits of what it can encompass. As an entirely derivative studio subgenre the superhero movie seems about to commence its very own fake self-deconstruction phase, repeating a cycle that had already run its course in the comics world by the time Batman came out in the late ’80s. What it needs is its Don Quixote, what it’s getting is its Unforgiven. That’s what they’re selling: who’s buying?

*1978’s Superman, aside from its inevitable (and like Phase 1 Batman, increasingly campy) sequels, didn’t really start a trend, and so I count it as more pioneer than progenitor. Evidently there were still more than enough non-comic book, but equally homoerotic/phobic superheroes for Hollywood to entertain us with.

** OTT, 300 is going to be amazing in 12 years or so, if any of us are still alive.

Three Types of Inactivity

Posted in Art on November 20, 2007 by traxus4420


la paresse —– laziness




l’oisiveté —– leisure




l’ennui —– boredom


But then there’s this fourth type



improductif —– unproductive



Or does it look like this





Or this







Though let’s not ignore the obvious